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Parkin Space: Holy Grail or Poisoned Chalice?

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For some years now, the notion of competency-based learning management (CBLM) has been viewed by training departments as the Holy Grail. But, like many things that make a lot of sense in theory, the practice is somehow unconvincing. In fact, the pursuit of CBLM, like the pursuit of e-learning, can cause us to lose sight of what is really important. Worse, it can do real damage to a company’s viability.

Here, in a nutshell, is the argument for CBLM: You can break the strategic plan of a business down into resource requirements, and within the human resources you can identify what competencies are required to fulfil the plan. You can drill down into that plan and create ever more detailed lists of competency requirements, by department, by project, by team, and by individual. Then, by surveying in depth the existing competencies of your employees, you can map out the gaps between what we have and what we need, and define a training plan to fill those gaps. No individual needs to be trained in anything that is not directly relevant to his or her personal competency growth path. You save time and money by surgically targeting all of your learning interventions, and doing away with the training smorgasbords of old. And you know that your training plans are intimately linked to your business objectives.

In a word, efficiency: which is management-speak for saving money. (True efficiency is about optimising outputs and inputs, not simply seeing how far we can cut costs before the house of cards collapses). CBLM is an industrial-economy concept, where specialization and division of labour are considered to be good things, and where no resources should be wasted on helping any individual to learn anything that is not specific to the performance of his or her particular task.

Of course, all training has always been competency based, only it was typically bottom-up, not top-down. I am not performing well as a salesman, it is deemed that I am less than competent, and sales training is in order. But the bottom-up approach, however pragmatic and situation-responsive it may be, does not collectively amount to a clean, efficient fit with corporate top-down approach. And it makes planning and cost-justification difficult. Hence CBLM. (As an aside, competency-based HR management, where skill gaps are looked at as resource requirements rather than training needs, has contributed to much of the outsourcing pandemic in Western corporations. Why spend time and money training people with the hope of a 10% improvement in performance, when you can fire the lot and hire offshore resources with greater competency at a third of the cost?)

Here, in a nutshell, is my argument against CBLM: We are no longer operating in an industrial age economy, so competency-based learning management doesn’t really work.

And, in the rare instances where it can be made to sort of work, it handicaps the organisation’s ability to rapidly innovate and adapt. Development of employees is now as important as their training. Collaborative workflows require employees to have a broader, not narrower, vision of their work. Industrial economy thinking seeks to eliminate overlaps in competencies; knowledge economy thinking acknowledges that without overlap there can be no synergy, and that competency overlaps foster the capacity for continual innovation. It is the opposite of specialisation – the more co-workers there are that know what I know, the more valuable that knowledge becomes. The same is true of skill. The future prosperity of organisations emerges from the white spaces between the org-chart boxes – sanitise those spaces by scrubbing regularly with CBLM, and nothing of value will ever grow there. Once you have instilled a regime of rigorous CBLM, don’t ever dare to tell an employee to think outside the box.

Another significant flaw in CBML is the belief that we can actually measure existing competencies, and maintain the resulting databases. Apart from the thin-ice of actually defining and measuring each competency in a way that is ethnically/culturally neutral and legally defensible, the effort inherent in keeping records up to date leaves most companies flailing. With e-learning, the real savings are not in course costs but in the business process costs associated with learning. With competency-based learning management, the business process costs may dramatically outweigh the course cost savings.

Is all CBLM a waste of time? Of course not. But blindly pursuing it because that’s what everyone else is doing, or because that’s what all the software vendors are hyping, can lead to the same frustration, expense, and lost opportunities as did the blind pursuit of e-learning. Like e-learning, which ironically has given enterprise-wide CBLM the semblance of being achievable, CBLM is only a good idea where it is appropriate, and where it is interpreted and applied intelligently and pragmatically. And like e-learning, which many companies wrongly feel they can fire up and leave running “as is” for eons, all CBLM initiatives are in a state of perpetual rapid decay, like a snowball rolling down a warm hill. A CBLM system, in a company competing in rapidly-changing dynamic markets, has a half-life of mere months. Factor that into your efficiency calculations, and weep.

* View more of Godfrey's columns at his TrainingZONE Parkin Space.

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